Graduates, I very much appreciate being given the opportunity to speak to you today, and I hope that you might be able to find some hope and encouragement in what I have to say.
It is customary for commencement speakers to challenge the graduates to go out and do extraordinary things; to go out and be world-changers; to dream big and aspire to do great things. But I’m going to issue you a challenge that is a bit different. I’m not going to challenge you to do extraordinary things, but rather to do ordinary things in an extra-ordinary way—or to put it somewhat differently, to do common things uncommonly well. This, it seems to me, is what the world needs more than anything else. Far too many people are satisfied with mediocrity. Far too many people are satisfied with doing just enough to get by. Too few strive to do what they do with excellence. But I would suggest to you that if something is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well.
Solomon tells us that a commitment to excellence will be rewarded. He mentions this in several of his proverbs, and he expresses it in a variety of ways. Consider, for example, how he puts it in Proverbs 10:4,
A slack hand causes poverty,
but the hand of the diligent makes rich.
Diligent means more than simply hard-working. The dictionary defines the term as meaning “done or pursued with persevering attention; painstaking.” This means doing things with an attention to the details to make sure that they’re done correctly, that they’re done right, that they’re done as they ought to be done. And what is this but an attempt to do things with excellence? Solomon says that there is a reward for this: the hand of the diligent makes rich. Wealth tends to come to those who pursue excellence. And not only wealth, but power, too. Solomon says,
The hand of the diligent will rule,
while the slothful will be put to forced labor.
The prophet Daniel is a perfect example of this. We’re told that,
Daniel became distinguished above all the other presidents and satraps, because an excellent spirit was in him. And the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom (Dan. 6:3)
Daniel was literally outstanding, meaning that he stood out from the others; he was distinguished above the rest of the leaders of Persia because of his excellent spirit. He was noticeably superior to them in how he conducted himself, and how he performed his duties. And so he was raised to a position of greater responsibility and power.
The patriarch Joseph is another example. He was faithful as a son, and was entrusted by his father with oversight over his brothers—which didn’t go too well for him since they were all older than he. In a fit of jealousy, his brothers sold him into slavery and he was taken to Egypt where he was bought by Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. But Joseph served in the house of Potiphar with such care and with such attention to detail, and did what he did so well, that Potiphar “made him overseer in his house and over all that he had” (Gen. 39:5). Then, when he was falsely accused and put in prison, he so distinguished himself that “the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners… [and] whatever was done there, he was the one who did it” (Gen. 39:22). And, as you know, he was eventually elevated to a position of great power in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh.
He did ordinary things (first as a son, then as a slave, then as a prisoner), but he did them in an extraordinary way and was rewarded for it.
Excellence has a way of rising to the top. Never forget this. Whatever you do—as a student, as an employee, as an employer, as a tenant, as a landlord, as a husband and father, or wife and mother, as a church member, or a member of your neighborhood or a civic organization—strive to do what you do well.
And not just in the big things, but in the little things, too. In Jesus’ parable the master tells his servant, “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much” (Lk. 16:10). Think about it. If you are not faithful, not diligent, and don’t strive for excellence in the little things, why should anyone trust with greater responsibility? Why should anyone give you a raise or a promotion? Those who prove faithful in the little things will gain for themselves a good testimony from both God and man.
I want to challenge you, then, not so much to seek to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things in an extra-ordinary way, to do common things uncommonly well.
And I would like to suggest a few ways in which this might be done—certain attitudes and habits to practice, and others to avoid if you wish to be successful in this endeavor called life.
Some Things to Avoid
First, some things to avoid, and first among these: never allow yourself to develop a mentality of entitlement. This is the mentality that some people seem to have that the world owes them something. The world owes them an education. The world owes them a job. The world owes them a big house and a nice car.
Another way in which this idea of entitlement is often expressed is in terms of desert…and I don’t mean that yummy sweetness that comes after the meat and potatoes. I mean “that which is deserved.” You will often hear people say things like, “I deserve this or that; I deserve a good-paying job; I deserve a big house; I deserve a nice car. I deserve…whatever.” This is very much akin to the notion of entitlement. People who think this way seem to think they’re God’s gift to the world, and that by their mere presence in it, they ought to be rewarded.
But listen to me very carefully because you need to know this: the world doesn’t owe you anything. And I’d be hard-pressed to find any circumstances in which anyone could rightfully claim that they deserve any of these things.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with desiring a good-paying job, driving a nice car and living in a big home; and if you should be so fortunate so as to obtain these things for yourself, good for you! I mean this very sincerely, good for you! But you never will attain them if you sit around waiting for the world to give them to you because you think you deserve them or feel yourself entitled to them. No, dreams become reality by the dint of hard work, by smart work, by thrift, by wise planning. Don’t expect others to give you or do for you what you ought to do for yourself. Don’t think yourself entitled to anything other than what you earn for yourself by your own diligence.
Very closely related to what we have just said, never allow yourself to develop a grievance mentality. There are those whom I like to call “the perpetually aggrieved.” These are people who are quick to take offense, slow to be reconciled, and people for whom nothing is ever good enough. They’re constantly complaining, always whining, and ever eager to play upon your sympathy. These are really difficult people to be around. Don’t be one of these people!
And right along with this, avoid playing the part of a victim. You’re going to find that sometimes life is hard, and sometimes people will do you wrong, and you will seem to have more than your fair share of trials and sorrows. You might find yourself in a set of life-circumstances that you would never have chosen for yourself: a financial set-back, the loss of a job, a diagnosis of a terrible disease, an act of betrayal by a friend or family member. The first thing to remember is that, “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). Don’t expect life to be all rosy. There are going to be many good times, to be sure. But there are also going to be some hard times along the way. This is true for everyone; it will be true for you, too. But don’t wallow in self-pity. Don’t play the part of a victim.
I once knew two old women, both of them shut-ins, who had both suffered more than the ordinary number of hardships and tragedies of life. One had grown bitter and seemed to think that the world itself had conspired against her. But the other woman was as joyful as she could be. She knew that life wasn’t always fair and that trials and troubles don’t always come in equal measure to everyone, but she didn’t let her troubles get her down. She was a joy to visit. I’m sad to say that it was a bit of a chore to visit the other one.
The old adage is true that it’s not what happens to you in life that matters, but how you react to what happens. You can become bitter, or you can become better. You can allow your trials and afflictions to refine you and make you a better person, or you can allow them to destroy you and turn you into a crank. Don’t be a crank!
Next, don’t make excuses for your failures but own up to them and learn from them. Some of you are going on to college and it may happen that you do poorly on a test or that you fail a class. Maybe someday you’ll start a business venture that goes under. Maybe you’ll have a relationship that ends up going south. Maybe you will be overcome in a moral failure. The thing is, take responsibility for your actions. Don’t blame others for things that are clearly your fault. You might remember that it didn’t go too well for our first parents when they tried to pass the buck. The Lord confronted Adam and said, “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” Adam said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” He was passing off the responsibility of his misbehavior onto his wife. Actually, it was even worse than this. He is implicitly blaming God: “…the woman whom you gave to be with me…” The Lord then spoke to Eve, “What is this that you have done?” And she said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
The blame game originates with the fall. Don’t blame others for your failures. Admit them. Admit them to yourself; admit them to God; and admit them to those whom you may have let down or sinned against. Then, do what you can to make amends for them. And then learn from them and move on.
Some things to Practice
Enough of what to avoid. How about some attitudes and behaviors to embrace and practice?
First, be hard on yourself and soft on others. As we said before, demand a lot from yourself; commit yourself to excellence. But be patient and forgiving of other people’s failures. Maybe they’ve let you down and disappointed you. Maybe they have wronged you. Be patient and forgiving. Don’t be too eager to write them off. Give them time to grow; give them an opportunity to redeem themselves. Treat them with the same kindness and consideration that you would hope to receive if you were the one who had failed.
Next, always treat people courteously. We live in a society that seems to be becoming increasingly rude and uncivil, and where cursing and invective and vulgarity have become commonplace. But things like courtesy and good manners and saying please and thank you and choosing to speak about what is good and praiseworthy in our neighbors rather than their faults; things like deferring to others by opening the door and letting your neighbor enter before you, or letting the person sitting at the table next to you have the larger of the last two pieces of pie; giving compliments rather than insults; all these things (and a thousand others besides) are ways of paying them respect as fellow bearers of the image of God. These are all aspects of what in a former generation was called being a lady or a gentleman. And a real test of character comes in whether we are ladies and gentleman to the least among us, those who can do the least for us in return.
Next, treat people as individuals, and not as members of a group. We often misjudge people when we do otherwise. Isn’t it the essence of racism, for example, to assume that because one is a member of a particular race that he or she partakes of the worst elements associated with it? Because some blacks are guilty of crimes, some whites think no blacks can be trusted. Because some whites are racist, some blacks assume all are. Because some cops have abused their power, some people conclude all cops are corrupt. The truth is: most blacks are good people; most whites are not racist; and most cops are doing their best at a very difficult job.
Treat people as individuals, not as members of a group. Get to know them at a personal level. A person is a human being, before he is anything else. Before he is white or black, male or female, young or old, rich or poor, he is a human being, made in the image and likeness of God. Never forget this.
Next, make a commitment never to stop learning. Your formal schooling may soon come to an end. Perhaps for some of you it already has; maybe high school is the end of the road for you, as far as school goes. But learning should be a lifetime endeavor. When you stop learning, you begin to die; you begin to die intellectually, and I would even make the case that you begin to die morally and spiritually, as well. You become less capable of exercising wisdom and of having empathy for others. God has created us to be thinking beings; this is one of the most important things that distinguishes us from the world of animals. The 17th century Christian philosopher, Blaise Pascal said, “All our dignity lies in thought; let us strive, then, to think well.” Never cease to learn.
Finally, let me say that I remember very well when I was your age and being quite uncertain as to what I was to do with my life. It seemed like an enormous decision, and I didn’t know how in the world to go about making it. I started out, like you, a bit tentative, a bit unsure of myself. But over time I discovered that I didn’t have to see the end from the beginning. Only God can do that. I could only take one step at a time in the direction I thought best at the moment and simply trust that the Lord would direct my way. And he has.
One of the things that has often comforted me in times of uncertainty has been just this: we don’t know the future, but we know the One who holds the future. It sounds very cliché-ish, and I suppose it is; but it’s true. And as we seek to be faithful to God from moment to moment and from day to day, he has a way of directing our steps and making his plan for us clearer and clearer. And make no mistake, the Lord does have a plan and purpose for your life. He has had his hand upon you from the very beginning; he has his hand upon you now; and he will have his hand upon you forever. And you can be sure that he will direct you into the plan that he has for you.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight (Prov. 3:5-6)
One of the things that has impressed me along these lines is how Jesus gave the apostles a general commission. He said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel. Make disciples of all the nations.” That’s a pretty daunting task. How in the world were they to accomplish it? Well, they began right where they were, in Jerusalem. And little by little, as they were faithful day by day, the Lord began to direct them—to give them more specific guidance, to go here or to go there. There is an interesting passage in this regard in the sixteenth chapter of Acts.
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them (Acts 16:6-10).
The point is, you don’t need to see the end from the beginning. All you need to do is to be faithful to the Lord, trust in him, find whatever it is you need to do in the present moment, do it with all your might for the sake of his glory, and he will direct your steps.
I would never have imagined when I was your age that I would be doing what I’m doing today and loving it as much as I do. Nor would I ever have imagined that I could ever be so confident that God had a very specific purpose for my life. But I am confident, and confident that I am doing what I was created to do.
Always look to God, consecrate yourself to him in all you do (school, work, recreation, in your relationships, etc.), and simply trust him to direct your way. He will. He will make it clear to you.
The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,
which shines brighter and brighter until the full day
I charge you, then, graduates, to rise to the challenge of doing ordinary things in an extra-ordinary way, to do common things uncommonly well for the glory of Jesus Christ our King, who was faithful in all the things, great and small, that the Father gave him to do. Amen.
The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.
— G.K. Chesterton —